There’s something slightly familiar about Miley Cyrus’ back-to-roots move, which has her looking and sounding softer, moth-balling the outrageous outfits, retracting that roaming tongue and trading club beats for an acoustic guitar. And then you realize what it is: This reinvention of a reinvention feels like a remake of “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” in which fictional Miley gets shipped off to a farm in Tennessee, where she grapples with an identity crisis over whether to keep or ditch the blond wig. In real life, Cyrus only had to go as far as “Malibu” — the setting of her recent top 10 single — to have an epiphany about trading in her trademark provocations for something more pastoral.
Far be it from us, usually, to knock a late-dawning authenticity embrace. But “Younger Now,” her sixth album under her own name, is pleasantly meh enough to inspire waves of unexpected nostalgia for twerk-era Miley. It is, by design, the very opposite of a wrecking ball, meant to lull you into a place of arcadian peace, with a few stops for minor romantic paranoia along the way. Oren Yoel, her collaborator for the entire album, has done a yeoman’s job of putting an interesting sonic spin on Cyrus’ sudden urge to get all strummy and finger-picky on us. But she’s too clumsy a lyricist (“Like the grass I’ve watched us grow / I’ve heard you’ll reap only what you’ll sow”) for neo-folk even remotely to be a strong suit.
Cyrus means to let us know exactly where she stands at this mindful crossroads. The album’s mea culpa-ish opening lines — “Feels like I woke up / Like all this time I’ve been asleep” — are followed by an addendum about not regretting her naughtier previous persona. All duly, and dully, noted. It’s not strictly about solipsism: In the closing ballad, “Inspired,” she embraces broader concerns about the future of the planet, although her gentle worrying about fear, hate and bee genocide makes us wish Yoel would jump in with some crass dance beats and bash all this mash into “Bangerz.”
Occasionally, Cyrus gets in touch with her commercial instincts — which, in her case, are her better ones. The best track, “Thinkin’,” starts off with a Sheryl Crow-style rhythm guitar riff before moving into playful, hip-hop-style phrasing. It’s irresistible enough to make you wonder why it wasn’t released as one of the album’s first two singles, except that “Malibu” and the underperforming title track better fit her narrative of self-rediscovery.
Another highlight (of sorts) is a twangy children’s song, “Rainbowland,” which, with the help of duet partner Dolly Parton, is both terrible and adorable. Most of the other tracks are blandly bucolic. May her current blue-jeans phase continue to bring her inner peace — and may she not have burned all the hot pants.